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Frank's Movie Log

My life at the movies.

Ninja in the Dragon's Den

(Long zhi ren zhe)
1982 | Hong KongJapan | 95 min | More...
A still from Ninja in the Dragon's Den (1982)
B: 4 stars (out of 5)
on Wed Apr 24, 2024

The overarching plot of Ninja in the Dragon’s Den concerns a rogue ninja, played Hiroyuki Sanada, who travels to China seeking vengeance, but finds his target protected by a hot-shot young kung-fu master played by Conan Lee. But tight plotting is not the film’s strong suit, it’s bone-crunching stunts and action sequences.

In transit to China, Sanada disappears for much of the film’s first half. Instead, the film focuses on Lee, who shines. His affable grin and innate charisma project an engaging cockiness that never veers into arrogance. He attends a local festival with his oversexed sidekick, where he shows off by taking on a bullying performer. Both men fight on stilts. It’s a visceral battle featuring thrilling stunts and wince-inducing falls. This kind of rougher, grittier, violence sets it apart from the Shaw Brothers productions. Both feature amazing choreography, but Ninja in the Dragon’s Den hews closer to pro-wrestling than Shaw Brothers’ ballet.

Another memorable set-piece comes when Lee exposes a charlatan kung-fu master. This sequence also features some unfortunate homophobic slurs. Though common in films of the era, they’re unnecessary and feel out-of-character for the speaker. That said, if you can overlook them, the fight thrills.

Once Sanada arrives in China, the plot resumes. Sanada proves a great foil for Lee, his stoic persona contrasting Lee’s flashiness, with Sanada’s innate charisma ensures he remains engaging.

More bloody battles culminate in a melodramatic misstep that sees one character dying while clad in white pancake makeup delivering a Shakespearean soliloquy. It aims for a gravitas the film hasn’t earned and the scene feels tone-deaf. As if sensing this gaffe, the film rights itself by delivering an engaging finale.

Director Corey Yuen announces himself as a major action talent in this solo directorial debut. Eschewing the manageability of soundstages, he stages a terrific sequence inside a cottage that spills out into the adjacent river, with both combatants soaked and trudging through the knee-deep water. He propels the film along with a visual kinetic intensity that heightens the visceral sense of immersion, without resorting to excessive close-ups or cuts.

His willingness to shoot wide enhances the film’s perceived production value. Consider the aforementioned cottage sequence where he frames the cottage, the river and both combatants, shooting at a distance to afford the scene an epic veneer. Or during the finale, which takes place in the courtyard of Lee’s tower compound, where Yuen cuts wide to showcase the impressive stunt work when characters climb up and repel down the tower.

Topping it off, Yuen shows a deft comedic touch. In one battle, Lee uses a sheet to double as a wall. Yuen stages a laugh-out-loud shot where he reveals the inanity of the illusion, with Lee poking his head out in a cartoonish fashion. It’s a one-off nod to the genre’s inherit ridiculousness that doesn’t detract from the narrative or emotional stakes. A similar moment comes later, when Sanada echoes the audience’s thoughts regarding a group of warriors engaging in some typical pre-fight choreography, asking, “What are they doing?”

Key to that line working, the English soundtrack shines. Whoever dubbed Lee nails his cocky charm. As does whomever dubbed Sanada and his bitter determination. These voice-actors don’t just recite the dialog, but give true performances that help convey the stars’ innate charisma and set the track above most English dubs.

Indeed, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den is a gem. Inspired stunts, visceral action, surprising humor, and kung-fu inanity. It may lack the gravitas of some of the genre’s premier titles, but for pure entertainment, it’s hard to top. And did I mention it opens with an 80s theme song? “Legend of the Ninja” by the Alfredo Chen Singers. The chorus-heavy, funk-inspired tune sounds just like you’d imagine. Genre fans should seek this one out.

Viewing History

    Watched on
    Wed Apr 24, 2024 via Blu-ray (Ninja Kommando, Ascot Elite Home Entertainment, 2014)